The next government should save the armed forces—and leave weapons makers to sink or swimby Lewis Page / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
ABOVE: A British arms industry exhibition in London
Britain’s next government will be forced to reduce spending. But given the wide agreement that these cuts should not affect the NHS or social security, the smallish departments, like the ministry of defence (responsible for about 5 per cent of spending) seem the likely targets. A 10 per cent cut at the MoD (some £4bn a year), is on the cards. At the same time, the main political parties agree that the 1998 strategic defence review (SDR), still the main guide to policy, also needs rewriting.
This worries many in the defence sector. The SDR promised that Britain would keep the ability to intervene militarily around the world. A secondary document, the defence industrial strategy (DIS) of 2005, guaranteed the continued existence of Britain’s arms industry. But with a new defence review and cuts in funding, one of those will have to go. And the arms industry is right to fear that the British people would prefer to keep their excellent armed forces, and jettison their economically insignificant, parasitical defence industry.
Consider the examples. Until recently, only a handful of British helicopters were capable of flying in Afghanistan. (The country is high and hot, so only powerful modern helicopters work there.) And even our modest troop numbers are already too numerous for the aircraft we can deploy.
Why don’t we just buy new helicopters? The American Sikorsky Black Hawk, for instance, is widely used in Afghanistan, by the Americans and also by British generals unable to find a suitable British alternative. Sikorsky has offered to sell to them, in large numbers and at favourable prices. Instead, we are refurbishing various antiques, such as the Puma. This dates from the 1960s and was due to retire in 2010. Now it will be patched up and its life extended by a decade. This will cost £10m per aircraft. Brand-new Black Hawks cost only about £8m and would fly for de…